As Utah heads into Pac-12 play, it will be without a running back that’s out for the year
Next week’s opponent, Arizona State, fell 30-21 at home to Eastern Michigan last Saturday.
Now that No. 13 Utah has concluded the nonconference portion of its schedule, the Utes are setting their sights on Pac-12 play.
After thumping San Diego State 35-7 over the weekend, Utah visits Arizona State Saturday (8:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN2).
“It gives us some momentum now going into conference play,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ve got a road trip next week to Tempe, and away we go. It’s conference play from here on out. That’s why we’re here — to try to win the Pac-12.”
The Sun Devils fell 30-21 at home to Eastern Michigan last Saturday. On Sunday afternoon, ASU fired coach Herm Edwards.
The Utes enter conference play a little shorthanded in the running backs room as Chris Curry suffered a season-ending injury last Saturday.
“Unfortunately, it looks like Chris Curry is gone for the season. It breaks my heart. He’s a great kid and a great teammate. All he does is work hard and doesn’t complain,” Whittingham said. “He’s a great leader for us. We’ll miss his leadership. Fortunately, he does have another year so we’ll get him back next year. That’s the big downer from the game.”
Curry rushed 12 times for 81 yards and a touchdown this season.
Meanwhile, cornerback Clark Phillips III suffered a third-quarter injury and did not return.
“All we can say is we don’t feel it’s serious but you never know how long it will take before we get him back,” Whittingham said about Phillips. “Hopefully this next week.”
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate was sidelined against SDSU due to injury. The Utes are hoping to have him back in the lineup at ASU as well.
Even without Diabate, Utah’s defense was dominant. The Utes held the Aztecs, who entered the day averaging 275 rushing yards per game, to 113 yards on the ground and 173 yards of total offense.
Whittingham praised freshman linebacker Lander Barton, who recorded four tackles and a quarterback hurry against SDSU.
“Lander Barton’s a stud. He’s the future of Utah football. He’s one of the future stars. He’s got it all,” Whittingham said. “He just needs to continue to get experience and get used to the speed of the Division I game. He’s a really good player.”
Utah made SDSU’s offense one-dimensional and it stuffed the run.
The Utes have taken big steps forward defensively the past couple of weeks after having struggles in a season-opening loss at Florida.
Linebacker Karene Reid, who recorded a second-half interception against SDSU, is pleased with the progress the defense has shown the past two weeks against Southern Utah and SDSU.
“We really needed that. The first two weeks, especially the front seven, we were trying to find our identity as a defense,” Reid said. “To play a team that loves to run the ball and takes pride in running the ball, and for us to stalemate them like that, it’s huge as far as momentum going into conference play.”
Safety Cole Bishop said the defense’s confidence is building.
“After Florida, we had a lot of missed tackles and that’s something that we’re really focused on,” he said. “I don’t think we had too many (Saturday) and last week we didn’t have many at all.”
Whittingham is pleased with the defensive performance over the past two weeks.
“We’ve certainly gotten seasoned, I guess you could say, in the front seven. The first game was abysmal. It was horrible. That just wasn’t who we are,” he said. “But then we settled in. Last week, you saw it show up. This week, against an FBS opponent, they were very stout up front. They did a nice job gap-control-wise.”
The Utes have allowed just two touchdowns in their last two games.
But Bishop knows his team still has room for improvement.
“We need to get better and better every week and we’re going to keep building on that,” he said. “We’ve been improving every week but we still have a lot to work on going into conference play.”
No. 13 Utah (2-1) at Arizona State (1-2)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
Sun Devil Stadium
Radio: ESPN 700